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The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer

Jane Smiley

(Knopf Doubleday; US: Oct 2010)

Neither Steve Jobs nor Bill Gates invented the computer, despite the impressions they tend to leave. The guy with the best claim to making the first “automatic electronic digital computer” was John Atanasoff, a 34-year-old associate professor of physics at Iowa State College.


So why isn’t Atanasoff as famous as Gates, or Jobs, or even his contemporary, Alan Turing? As novelist Jane Smiley (A Thousand Acres, Moo) explains in her biography of Atanasoff, The Man Who Invented the Computer, Iowa State didn’t really grasp what Atanasoff had wrought: “His ideas were so advanced that he had to prove they were worth something to people who did not really understand them.”


The inventor himself didn’t always play nice with others, and World War II, though an enormous stimulus to computer development itself, got in the way of both patent processes and scientific information sharing. Also, some other early computer scientists adapted or stole some of Atanasoff’s work, then tried to diminish or obscure the original inventor’s role in the creation story of the machine. Atanasoff, who earned his doctorate in physics from the University of Wisconsin in 1930, began working on a calculating machine because, Smiley writes, “He saw over and over again that all scientific and engineering progress would be retarded until some sort of breakthrough in methods of calculation.”


Smiley describes him as a classic American innovator, inquisitive, practical and hands-on. In 1937-‘38, he worked out the basic principles of his machine: electronic logic circuits that would perform a calculation by turning on or off; binary enumeration, a number system with only the digits 0 and 1; capacitors for regenerative memory; and computing via direct logical action, by counting rather than measuring. The Atanasoff-Berry Computer, 74 inches long, 36 inches deep and about 40 inches tall, including casters, was operational by mid-1940.


Atanasoff described how the machine worked in a 35-page paper he wrote to attract more funding. That paper became a critical element in a court decision that affirmed Atanasoff as the inventor of the computer in 1978. That court decision invalidated a patent other scientists had claimed.


“The result,” Smiley writes, “was as John von Neumann had suspected — once the ideas became common property, innovation blossomed, and the computer revolution took hold.” Smiley deftly sketches other innovators working on similar and overlapping projects simultaneously, including Turing, von Neumann, Atanasoff rival John Mauchly and German inventor Konrad Zuse, building his own machine under the nose of the Nazis.


Atanasoff’s invention was a milestone, but also only a steppingstone to the personal computers we depend on today. “The Second World War was the sine qua non of the invention of the computer and the transformation of the nature of information and the nature of human thought that the computer age has brought about,” Smiley writes.


Some passages of Smiley’s bio are challenging simply because the topics, mathematical and mechanical, require effort to grasp. Her writing is clear and crisp. Her detailed account of the trial that confirmed Atanasoff’s stature could practically serve as a treatment for a “Law & Order: Intellectual Property”.


She also finds plenty of drama and personality along the way: “There was no inventor of the computer,” she writes about these scientists collectively, “who was not a vivid personality, and no two are alike.” She is fair-minded to all parties in the evolution of the computer, and scrupulous in sourcing her material. Whether this was a labor of love or a bread-and-butter job for the eclectic Smiley, readers can be grateful she used her intelligence and narrative skills to tell this story.

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